Series on Police Reform incites hope of starting more conversations at Bethel University.
By Chloe Peter | Contributing Writer
Gloria Portillo sat in a classroom full of other history students, where the topic of the day was history of poverty and economics. As the only person of the color in the room, the professor continued to call on her for opinions.
Normally, Portillo stayed quiet in class. This time, she didn’t have an option. She shifted in her seat as she explained her thoughts, the several sets of eyes on her becoming overwhelming. The more she expressed her opinions, the more she wanted to shrink into herself.
One student brought up “building the wall.” Another suggested that people of color who live in places where crime is high or are living in poverty should just go out and get better jobs or transfer to better schools. Portillo watched and listened as the rest of her class took sides and started to argue.
“You’re the one that looks different, so you’re expected to share,” said Portillo, a junior business major who identifies as Latinx.
Portillo is not the only student who feels uncomfortable with the racial tensions at Bethel – she has had many friends share similar experiences on Bethel’s campus and hopes that a guest speaker series on police reform in Minnesota which started Sept. 23 will help change that.
“If Bethel wants to continue to diversify as they repeatedly promote in brochures, which has come across as tokenism, then as an institution it needs to keep moving forward,” Portillo said.
The virtual series, which held its final session Oct. 14, included four weekly talks. The first given by the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The second given by a former police chief. The third, a Minneapolis city council member. And, lastly, state senator Jeff Hayden, who represents the district in which Floyd was killed.
Andy Johnson, associate professor of psychology, came up with the idea for the series after realizing how much misinformation had been spread around police reform following Floyd’s death in May. Through the online sessions, his goal is to provide the Bethel community with a wide variety of opinions about police reform.
“We wanted to teach students about working together as a team and gaining experience with controversial topics,” Johnson said.
Tanden Brekke, assistant director of community engagement at Bethel, helped put up boards over the windows and doors of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church after he heard white supremacist groups would be targeting historic black churches in the area. Not long after, Brekke got a call from Johnson about the idea to create the series about police reform.
“This series will not fully unpack [issues with police and racial tensions], but it will get people more involved and more informed,” Brekke said.
Johnson and Brekke hoped that, by opening these talks up to the entire student body, it would open the door for new opportunities in discussing topics like police reform and race from a Christian point of view.
“We, as a Christian school, don’t have the luxury of being isolated or pretending that we’re not connected to the rest of the world,” Johnson said.
While Bethel created a George Floyd Memorial scholarship for incoming students with Black or African American heritage in August, the announcement was met with opposition from alumni and community members who voiced concerns about Floyd’s criminal history in relation to Bethel.
Shortly after, President Ross Allen announced the Bethel University Institutional Action Plan for Diversity and Racial Healing, which is expected to be shared with the community soon.
In Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together, one of the values listed includes “human life in all diversity and fullness, recognizing that women and men of all races, ages, and ability levels reflect the creative genius of our Maker.” Portillo hoped more conversations would be started along these lines and that more students will become involved after hearing about the series on police reform.
“If Bethel wants to continue to uphold this specific part [of the covenant], then [it should] get the students talking about this, no matter how uncomfortable it gets or how distant the issue is from one’s [white] everyday life,” Portillo said.
“A Minnesota man can’t be charged with felony rape because the woman chose to drink beforehand, court rules,” a Washington Post headline reads after a sexual assault conviction was overturned in the Minnesota Supreme Court in March.
The case, where a woman was sexually assaulted while intoxicated, was appealed due to a Minnesota sexual misconduct statute written in 1975.
The statute states a person who sexually assaults another is guilty in the third degree if “the actor knows or has reason to know that the complainant is mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.”
While the facts of the case weren’t debated during the appeal, the definition of “mentally incapacitated” was, since the woman wasn’t forced to be drunk. The court found the definition only includes those who are intoxicated against their will. In the case of the Minneapolis woman, she had been drinking alcohol and taking drugs prior to meeting the man, so she was labeled as voluntarily intoxicated.
The decision and new ruling was met with outrage. It sparked a campaign to change and strengthen the statute regarding the sexual assault laws in Minnesota, specifically calling for the law to state that all intoxicated people are incapable of giving consent to sex.
This statute is the difference between the perpetrator charged with a gross misdemeanor or a felony. A felony charge would put him on the Minnesota Predatory Offender Registry and increase his prison sentence. Instead, the court released him from prison and ordered a new trial for the man.
Close to home
While Bethel doesn’t carry out disciplinary actions based on criminal statutes, Title IX Coordinator and Compliance Officer Cara Wald follows policies set in place for the university.
“If a person is intoxicated, voluntarily or not, that person is unable to give consent,” Wald said. “Consent is one of the many issues that we examine when we receive a sexual assault report.”
Wald says the Supreme Court decision could easily be misunderstood and believes the justices’ “hands were tied by the Minnesota statute’s language.” The court didn’t have the capacity to change the law, but encouraged lawmakers to do so.
One Bethel student, who has preferred to remain anonymous, shuddered after reading the headline repeated over and over as more news outlets around the country reported the news. Her own experience mirrored the court case.
“It has opened the door again where I thought I’d shut it enough to finish school and finish it out here,” she said. “We hear this headline and it’s just hard.”
During her freshman year, she was sexually assaulted after a homecoming dance. She had been drinking alcohol when a male friend who was with her, assaulted her. This male student had been sexually suggestive for weeks leading up to the assault and made it obvious through Snapchat messages and comments that he wanted a sexual relationship with her.
“Freshman year, that was how I saw men; they saw me as somebody to sleep with,” she said.
The student didn’t report to Bethel’s Title IX or anyone else. She had a prior experience reporting an incident to Student Life and felt drained from the process.
“Now I would never report it because it’s not real,” the student said. “Maybe there’s more to it that I’m missing, but from the headlines and from what I’ve read, why would I go through the trouble of putting myself through hardship and reliving the trauma to have someone say, ‘Well, you were voluntarily intoxicated. It’s not real.’ I would feel like death at the end of that.”
A new bill for change
A new bill is moving through the Minnesota legislature that will update the wording in this sexual conduct statute. Legislators who wrote the bill are hoping to expand the definition of “mentally incapacitated” to include voluntary intoxication.
Democratic state representative Kelly Moller and Republican state representative Marion O’Neill co-author the bill that aims to fill the gaps in the Minnesota law.
“Sexual assault cases are grossly underreported, and it certainly doesn’t help when there are a lot of media stories about intoxicated victims not getting protection,” Moller said.
The current bill, House File 707, is based on the framework of a previous bill, entitled ‘Hannah’s Law,’ that was proposed after a young woman fell victim to the loose terms of the sexual assault law. This case could not have been charged, due to some loopholes involving intoxication and protections for children under the current law. Moller wants to note that there are some legal protections when it comes to voluntary intoxication and sexual violence.
In 2019, Moller and other legislators created a working group comprised of sexual assault survivors and advocates that aimed to share their experiences and give recommendations to ensure the statutes are able to provide justice for victims like Hannah.
Bethel task force taking charge
Philosophy professor Sara Shady says that there’s an unhealthy or harmful discussion of sex on campus which makes reporting sexual assault, especially in the context of drinking, more difficult.
Shady is part of a working group that addresses the problem of sexual assault at Bethel. Once the group was formed, they began to draft guidelines and plans that were approved by the Faculty Senate and Cabinet.
Since 2019, 90 posters with QR codes leading to Title IX’s website have gone up in freshman hall bathroom stalls. The websites titled “Complaints and Concerns” and “What to Expect” have been updated by the working group and include next steps for anyone who has experienced sexual assault.
One of the working group’s goals is to implement an NCAA “Step Up” bystander curriculum, which Bethel Athletics will utilize.
“The Step-Up Bystander training is an awesome training that extends beyond sexual violence into bullying/hazing, alcohol use/abuse – even a potential tool for recognizing racism or other kinds of bias,” Gretchen Hunt, a member of the working group, said.
Their plan is to test out the training on a small group during the next academic year before completely adopting the plan. The task force also plans to start voluntary discussion groups led by faculty and staff to talk about sexual assault.
“We hope that the training and the education that we provide to our students and employees gives individuals valuable information on this topic,” Wald said.
Title IX Coordinator/Compliance Officer firstname.lastname@example.org Office: 651.635.8657 Cell: 612.709.4783 Office location: ANC530
For an advocate outside of campus Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault 161 St. Anthony Ave., Ste. 1001 St. Paul, MN 55103 Phone: 651.209.9993 email@example.com
24-Hour Emergency On-Campus Office of Security and Safety 651.638.6400 Office location: HC103
The “Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment Policy” website includes phone numbers, office locations, emails, and names of those who you can report sexual assault to inside and outside of campus. Included are confidential resources as well. The “What to Expect” website contains information on what to expect when you report a sexual assault or harassment to the Title IX Coordinator. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
Although emphasized as a part of America’s past, Indigenous Americans at Bethel are working towards increasing awareness and representation of their cultures.
By Soraya Keiser | News Reporter
Bridger Foster feels free when he dances in the annual powwow on the Red Cliff Reservation in Bayfield, WI. Eagle feathers in his hand, red paint on his face, bells on his legs and dressed in the regalia of a classically trained dancer, Foster follows the crowd clockwise around the gazebo as drummers beat out the rhythm. The beat of which represents the Anishinaabe people’s connection to the earth. Although hundreds of people come to watch and participate, Foster barely notices that.
“It’s very euphoric and very just in the moment,” Foster said. “Like nothing else matters. I feel very connected to my ancestors and I feel very at home.”
Foster, a junior nursing student at Bethel, is a card-carrying member of the Métis tribal nation in Ontario. This means that he holds official tribal membership with the Métis. He also has Huron and Wyandotte heritage and grew up surrounded by the culture of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe people in Northern Wisconsin. Foster is the director of the First Nations subgroup of United Cultures of Bethel and helps plan events throughout the year highlighting Indigenous American culture.
The de facto advisor for the First Nations subgroup of United Cultures of Bethel is Associate Professor of Communication Studies Dr. Scott Sochay. Originally from Northern Michigan, Sochay is a card-carrying member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. Unlike Foster, Sochay did not grow up surrounded by his native culture. Sochay’s father wanted to distance himself from the tribe after witnessing and experiencing discrimination because his mother, Sochay’s grandmother who was an Indigenous tribal member, married a white man.
“I grew up knowing I was Indian but not really knowing a whole lot about what that meant,” Sochay said.
It wasn’t until college when Sochay was really able to explore his heritage. Sochay received a scholarship to Michigan State University through the 1971 Native American Tuition Act because his grandmother was listed in the 1908 Michigan tribal census.
“Knowing that my native heritage was going to pay for my college education, I said, even though my dad really wasn’t all that interested in passing on his heritage, I want to learn what it means to be native now that it’s paying for my schooling.” Sochay said. “That really in a sense was the catalyst for me really starting to ask that question: What does it mean to be native?”
From this point on, Sochay dove into the culture and history of his ancestors when he got involved with the North American Indian Student Organization at Michigan State. By listening to speakers, participating in campus powwows and reading up on his specific tribal history, Sochay soon realized that the way he saw the world was “more native than that of mainstream Western culture.”
For Sochay’s tribe, everything living is intertwined. Humans, animals, plants, spirits and natural resources.
“In Western culture we tend to separate faith from reason, religion from science, the natural from the supernatural,” Sochay said. “In native cultures there are no walls of separation or distinctions. Spiritually, Native Americans see the world as far more alive.”
Because of this, he sees all aspects of the natural world as sacred.
Growing up in Northern Wisconsin, Foster and his tribal community hunted, fished and gathered only what was necessary for food and natural herbal remedies. With these practices he gained a deep respect for nature.
One way that Foster tries to emulate this respect is by living with zero waste. Back home, the Anishinaabe are very conscious of the resources they use. For example, if an animal is hunted and killed for food, the community uses every part of the animal, not just the parts they want to eat.
Foster crochets old t-shirts and plastic bags into blankets and sleeping mats for the homeless. He is also working with Bethel grounds crew to set up a compost pile on campus.
“I believe very much that God created everything we see and loves everything that he created,” Foster said. “So, for us to go around destroying what he created is disrespectful to Him.”
Protesting the pipeline
Respect for the earth has also led both Foster and Sochay to resist the replacement of the Line 3 Pipeline in Northern Minnesota.
Line 3 is a pipeline created by Enbridge, a multinational energy transportation company, to transport tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. Enbridge has plans to replace the pipeline with a new route. Both the current and future pipelines run through tribal lands, which are sovereign nations and protected under treaties with the U.S. government.
Environmental groups, tribal nations and their allies have staged regular protests for six years in order to prevent Enbridge from building a new pipeline.
“The Native American perspective is we are trying to protect our water because we consider it sacred,” Sochay said.
Activists also resist the pipeline because if a spill occurs, it would negatively affect the ecosystems of Northern Minnesota. Polluted water would hurt the fishing and wild rice harvesting that is essential to the culture of Indigenous tribes across Minnesota. However, this pollution would affect more than just Minnesota as spills would flow into the Mississippi River headwaters and the Lake Superior watershed, depositing tar sands into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.
This is a nightmare for many Native Americans that has already started to play out. 30 years ago, Line 3 ruptured, spilling 1.7 million gallons of tar sands and oil into the water system.
“So, it’s happened before. It’s not like the oil companies can say, ‘Oh this’ll never happen,’” Sochay said. “It has. And it’s happened in a big way.”
Line 3 is not unique in its controversy. Sochay’s tribe is dealing with a lawsuit of its own against the Line 5 pipeline in Michigan, and Foster’s family has been involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests throughout the past few years.
Sochay hopes that the treaties created years ago with many tribes across the United States will be upheld and that pipeline construction will stop.
“Native tribes that are recognized by the federal government are considered sovereign nations. You don’t enter into a treaty with anyone other than a sovereign nation,” Sochay said. “And so, when we don’t want pipelines through our tribal lands or potentially impacting the waters that we use to fish and grow wild rice, we are asserting our sovereignty.”
Joining the discussion
Foster hopes to better educate the Bethel community not only on the effects of a new pipeline, but about Indigenous cultures as a whole. He is talking with Bethel professors about how to accurately represent Indigenous Americans as not just a thing of the past. Not just as people only mentioned in chapters on colonialism in American history textbooks. According to the United States Census Bureau there are more than 2.9 million Indigenous people living in America to this day. Foster is also working on restructuring the Bethel Covenant for Life Together so that it is more culturally inclusive.
These efforts are to create a closer Indigenous American community on campus prove difficult because of the lack of students who identify as coming from an Indigenous background. Foster is one of four students he knows of that are Indigenous American, and Sochay is the only Indigenous American faculty member that Bethel has ever employed.
“Because there has never been in a sense what you would call a critical mass of native students here on campus, it’s very difficult to help develop a native community,” Sochay said. “As a Bethel faculty member, I often feel isolated at times because whenever anything here on campus happens that involves Native American culture in some way, shape or form, I know I am going to be called on whether I want to be or not. And sometimes that can be a little bit tiring or weary.”
Although both Foster and Sochay wish that Bethel would do more regarding Indigenous American representation, they realize that Bethel isn’t always the one to blame.
“It’s not a Bethel issue,” Sochay said. “It’s a larger cultural issue.”
He wishes that Indigenous American culture and rights were less overlooked and forgotten.
“As Native Americans we tend to get tired of issues related to diversity and civil rights [being] almost always framed exclusively in a Black-White context,” Sochay said. “We often feel like we are just left out of the discussion.”